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August 05, 2019

Paul Hagen: The Phillies could face unforeseen consequences for demoting Maikel Franco

Major League ballplayers make a lot of money and people ask them for their autographs and tell them how great they are and you’d think they don’t have a care in the world.

Which isn’t true, of course. Players are human beings too, PhillyVoice has learned, with the same sorts of worries and insecurities everyone else has.

John Kruk even mentioned it during Saturday night’s telecast, how as a younger player he always felt like he had to win a job every spring no matter how well he’d played the year before, because the Padres always brought in another first baseman to challenge him. That came up after Bobby Abreu, the newest Wall of Famer, talked about how much it meant to him after he was traded to the Phillies to have manager Terry Francona tell him he’d be the regular right fielder no matter what he did in spring training.

And all that happened even before the shocking news that third baseman Maikel Franco had been demoted to Triple-A Lehigh Valley began to circulate Sunday morning.

In a moment, we’ll try to parse the specifics behind this stunning development. But let’s begin with what it means to everybody who still has a locker in the clubhouse.

Players take their cues from the manager. Players take their cue from the general manager. That hasn’t changed for as long as baseball has been played. It’s why it’s accepted as gospel that bringing in a big name at the trade deadline is believed to have intangible benefits beyond just adding a bat or an arm.

What has changed is how teams operate. The manager used to be the dictator of the dugout. He gave orders and the players were expected to follow orders without asking questions. Meanwhile, the baseball operations departments relied on scouting reports to put the best possible roster together.

These days, managers stress how much they care for players as people while general managers and their lieutenants increasingly rely on the bloodless numbers generated by computers. And when those competing tensions collide, something’s gotta give.

So almost every Phillies player who suited up for Sunday’s 10-5 loss to the White Sox at Citizens Bank Park had some variation of this nagging thought buzzing around his brain: Holy moley. Franco’s gone? That could have been me.

Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes shaking things up a little is necessary.

But there’s also the risk that it can backfire. At a hastily-called pregame press conference, Gabe Kapler was asked if he was concerned this might upset team chemistry.

“It matters, and what I’d say in these kind of situations, and it happens every year in every clubhouse, it is the responsibility of the field staff, the manager, the players to manage expectations and manage the chemistry and then to ultimately know that what’s best on the field for the Phillies is best for everybody,” he said.

The manager added that he believes there were strong, positive clubhouse influences who will help everyone concentrate on the big picture.

He may be right. Again, though, we’re talking about human beings who aren’t always going to react in perfectly rational ways.

Consider what happened after Zach Eflin was sent back to the minors almost exactly a year ago, another move that made people react and though they’d been jabbed with a cattle prod.

The announcement came after the righthander allowed two earned runs in six innings against the Padres. He walked one and struck out eight. He took the loss, but was still 8-4 for the season with a 3.57 earned run average and a .238 opponent’s batting average.

Even though this was largely a paper move to gain a minor roster advantage and Eflin never actually missed a start, it cost him about $20,000 and a few days of service time. And nothing was the same after that.

He made eight more starts in 2018. He went 3-4, 6.27. Opponents batted .310 against him.

More significantly, when the move was made the Phillies were 54-51 (.557) and tied for first place. Afterward they were 16-31 (.340) and missed the playoffs.

Might the remainder of the schedule have played out exactly the same if Eflin hadn’t taken one for the team? Absolutely. But we’ll never know.

And while it would be ridiculous to suggest that there’s a direct correlation between Franco’s abrupt dismissal and being thumped by a team that had won only six games since the All-Star break, it was hardly an encouraging first-game-of-the-rest-of-their-season, either.

(In an unrelated note, it’s not going to get any easier. Beginning Monday night the Phillies play their next seven games in Arizona and San Francisco. Since the start of the 2017 season they’re a combined 11-33 on the road against NL West teams.)

Look, Franco has been maddeningly inconsistent. Last season he led the team in batting average while hitting 22 homers and driving in 68 runs. But those numbers are largely discounted by advanced analytics. Instead, the focus was on a launch angle that didn’t get the ball in the air often enough. His on base percentage was low. He’s basically a one-position player in an era when versatility is prized. So it’s possible to justify this on baseball grounds.

Except. . . One of the stated reasons was that they now have so many outfielders that Scott Kingery can only get playing time by being moved to third. Except that all these outfielders didn’t just show up on the doorstep. They weren’t mysteriously dropped off by a UFO. Jay Bruce and Corey Dickerson were acquired in trades. Adam Haseley and Roman Quinn were promoted out of the farm system.

It’s also worth mentioning that, through it all, Franco was playing a pretty good defense and that the Phillies have added a couple pitch-to-contact starters in Drew Smyly and Jason Vargas who benefit from strong glove-work behind them. Kapler pointed out that Kingery adapted well when moved from his natural position, second base, to shortstop and again this year when he started playing a lot of outfield. Fair enough. But what if the Phillies miss an opportunity for just one win because a play isn’t made while Kingery is making the transition.

Bottom line, Franco is now an IronPig for the first time since 2015 because a decision was made that that makes the Phillies a better team. On paper, that could be true.

It’s also worth remembering that baseball games aren’t played on paper. They’re played on grass and dirt by real human beings with real human emotions which can sometimes result in unintended consequences.